Police in South Africa’s northern Limpopo Province have shut down hundreds of shops run by refugees and asylum seekers during an operation to enforce trading laws that observers say were “selectively enforced” to target foreign nationals.
A directive issued by Limpopo’s police commissioner on 26 July instructed police to crack down on informal, or ‘spaza’, stores and liquor shops operating without trading licenses.
“We didn’t discriminate, whether it’s foreign or local,” said police spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi, who estimated that Operation Hard Stick closed down more than 500 spaza shops all over the province. “We want people to follow the law to the letter. If you don’t have a trading license, it means you’re running a business illegally, then we have to take action.”
But according to Ahmed Shueyb, a Somali asylum seeker and shopkeeper, all of the roughly 20 spaza shops raided and closed down by police in one section of Sheshego, a town northwest of the provincial capital, Polokwane, were owned by Somalis and Ethiopians.
“They didn’t close the locally owned shops,” said Shueyb. “They allowed them to come later with their licenses.”
Tobias Hlambelo, a field associate with the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) based in Limpopo, confirmed that his agency was unaware of a single locally owned shop that had been closed down during the operation.
“For me, it sets a dangerous precedent because it denies refugees the right to have a legal source of income without providing a valid alternative,” said Alphonse Munyaneza, a Pretoria-based senior regional community service officer with UNHCR.
Limited opportunities for refugees
South Africa’s refugee legislation gives asylum seekers the right to work and study, and refugees are supposed to enjoy the same rights as citizens. But acquiring full refugee status can take years and getting the South African ID document necessary to register a business can take several more.
Unable to apply for a trading license using his asylum-seeker permit, Shueyb and his two partners rented their shop from a local who gave them a copy of his license. “We showed it to the police but they said, ‘We want a license from you’," he recalled. "They said, ‘You Somalis have no rights here, you must go back to your country’ and when we tried to talk back, they threatened us with jail.”
Shueyb and his partners watched while the police loaded their entire stock, including their refrigerators, into a police van. They were not issued a receipt, and were jailed at the local police station until they paid a R2,000 (US$240) fine.
With few employment opportunities, many asylum seekers and refugees operate small shops in informal settlements, where bylaws regulating trading are rarely enforced and where locals have come to rely on them for reasonably priced essentials such as milk, maize-meal, bread and mobile phone airtime.
“They’re really providing services in some remote areas where people can buy goods locally at good prices,” said Munyaneza. “But it would be better if they were evenly distributed so as to avoid saturation in some locations.”
Operating in such areas comes with a number of risks besides the problem of police harassment. Foreign traders often face hostility from local business owners; during the service delivery protests that have rocked townships and informal settlements all over South Africa in recent years, their shops are routinely targeted for looting and burning.
According to Mulaudzi of the police, foreign traders also make “soft targets” for criminals because they tend to keep large amounts of cash on the premises rather than in banks.
Munyaneza pointed out that asylum seekers and even refugees often have difficulties opening bank accounts without Department of Home Affairs-issued IDs and that many of the attacks against foreign traders appeared to be motivated by xenophobia. UNHCR records an average of three severe xenophobic incidents a week in South Africa, with deaths resulting from such incidents totalling 100 in 2011.
Need for organization
In March of this year, the ruling ANC party released a policy discussion document in which the issue of whether non-South Africans should be allowed to buy, rent or run spaza shops was raised. The document will be discussed at the ANC’s national elective conference in December, but Munyaneza believes police operations like the one in Limpopo are already informally implementing aspects of the proposed policy.
According to Jacob Van Garderen, national director of Lawyers for Human Rights, similar operations targeting foreign-owned shops have taken place in other provinces. “It’s not a new phenomenon, but more and more of it has been taking place in the last year,” he told IRIN.
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The Somali Community Board of South Africa estimates that over 200 Somali-owned shops all over Limpopo were closed down during last month’s operation, and that in most cases, goods were confiscated without a receipt being issued.
Munyaneza said UNHCR was not in a position to provide direct assistance to affected families because that was the primary responsibility of the government. "This operation has created a humanitarian problem with the displacement and destitution of several hundred people falling under the protection of the government, so they need to respond to it," he said.
Meanwhile, International Catholic NGO Caritas, which runs a social cohesion programme in Limpopo, is advocating for the establishment of an Afro-Asian business association that would represent the interests of foreign traders.
"Unless people get organized and start working together, they can be picked off," said Sister Aine Hughes, who works for Caritas in Limpopo. "If they can form an association, they would have a voice."
Shueyb said his customers were “crying”, but that even if the police allowed him to reopen his shop, he had no way of getting his confiscated stock back and could not afford to buy new stock or even pay his rent.
“About 10 of us were supported by that shop,” he said. “We’re being fed by the community, through the mosque, but we need help.”